Hillary and Clinton, by Lucas Hnath, at Golden Theater
Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton and her bad-boy husband, former president Bill, have been fixtures in America’s political life and cultural zeitgeist for nearly 30 years. After her humiliating loss in 2016 to a man whom most assumed she would defeat easily, Hillary—and yes, even Bill—looked ready to fade into the twilight, but playwright Lucas Hnath was unwilling to let them go. He wrote the first draft of his provocative exploration of their marriage and America’s political culture in 2008, just as Hillary seemed poised to win the Democratic presidential nomination. She didn’t, of course, but Hnath didn’t give up. He first staged the play in Chicago in 2016, though he worried that it might lack dramatic punch, since Hillary was regarded as the inevitable next president.
Her political demise was the playwright’s—and Broadway’s—gain. Thanks to her loss to a modern-day Harold Hill, The Music Man’s smooth-talking con man and traveling salesman, Hillary has become the flawed heroine of a seemingly endless political drama. Weaving artfully between the personal and political, Hnath has created two memorable characters, portrayed by two giants of American theater. For 90 riveting minutes, Laurie Metcalf (Hillary) and John Lithgow (Bill) do battle on the Golden Theatre’s spare stage, with nary a dramatic misstep. Hillary’s diminished, but still palpable, feelings for her partner vie with her fury over being chained to his infidelities and all-too-human failings. Hnath’s portrait of what could charitably be called their difficult marriage is convincing. His crisp dialogue sears. He offsets Hillary’s occasionally heartbreaking candor about the failures of her marriage and her own political shortcomings with wit and humor. It’s a very funny play, a true tragicomedy.
The deceptively complex script imagines the closed-door dynamics of the Clintons’ marriage and political careers, with insight into both. Some critics found Hnath’s decision to dramatize a character like Hillary foolhardy, given the depth and range of emotions that she inspires. Aware of the dramatic risks of representing such well-known figures, Hnath cautioned his actors against trying to impersonate them. Metcalf is not a blond; Lithgow has no Southern drawl, and does not bite his lip. Hnath’s Hillary, dressed in an oversized turtleneck t-shirt and sweat pants, opens the play by suggesting the existence of another Hillary, another Bill, and another presidential election in another United States, in an alternate universe. As a dramatic device, it only partially works, but it enables Hnath to fictionalize an otherwise all-too-familiar celebrity power couple.
The play opens in a sterile New Hampshire hotel room, designed by Chloe Lamford as an austere box, its contours defined by Hugh Vanstone’s fluorescent lighting. It’s 2008: Hillary, on the verge of losing the state’s primary, is desperate. A loss here, on the heels of her disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, would end her presidential bid. Depressed, bone-tired, and out of ideas, she calls Bill for help, ignoring the promise she has just made to her campaign adviser, Mark Penn (a superb Zak Orth), to keep Bill “far away from here.”
“You really have a thing about my husband,” Hillary tells Penn. “A lot of people have a thing about your husband,” he replies.
Twelve hours later, Bill (Lithgow) arrives—a sulky, self-pitying, but likeable mess. He’s dragging a travel bag that seems to contain his wounded pride, only part of his heavy emotional baggage. Hurt by his banishment but eager to return to the political arena, he explains what he’s been doing during her campaign—writing a book, giving speeches, performing charity work. “I just like being useful,” he whimpers. “I’ve been erased,” he later whines. “Like I never existed.”
When Hillary tells him that she’s going to lose New Hampshire because her campaign is out of money, he astutely diagnoses her problem—and it’s not money. On the campaign trail and on TV, he tells her, she comes off as “weird, and wooden, and stiff.” Yes, she knows the issues, is enormously disciplined, and genuinely listens to people, as she insists Bill never really did. But she has no relatable “story,” he says. People don’t vote “with their brains,” he chides her. “It’s never not emotional.” She refuses to pander to the “lowest common denominator,” she responds. “I think I’m better than that.” His reply: “You’re better than everyone, and you act like it all the time, and it makes people feel like shit. People don’t like people who make them feel like shit.” If only she would let people see the Hillary he sees, he counsels, she would win.
Hnath’s script, under Joe Mantello’s firm direction, captures the paradox of being Hillary, and a Clinton. All her life, people have judged her based on her emotional responses to events, she complains. Her “story” is irrevocably Bill’s—the “albatross” that follows her—the “curse” and “stench” of him, as she later puts it. When she asks him late in the play to acknowledge publicly what they have both always known—that she was the brains behind his political rise, the author of his best ideas, the one who wrote much of his political script—Lithgow responds with affectionate but clinical detachment. “That’s not a winning strategy, Hill.” The moment is poignant because the audience knows that there is no winning strategy for her.
She can change her “story,” she tells him, but only by divorcing him. Leaving him would destroy the widespread perception that she stood by her man through his series of flings and humiliating infidelities not because she loved him but because she was ruthlessly ambitious and wanted to be president. “I’m the woman who used her husband to get into politics,” she says, characterizing how many see her.
Hnuth never mentions Monica Lewinsky or Donald Trump—the twin threats to her past and future political aspirations—but both cast a shadow. Barack Obama (the elegant Peter Francis James) appears in the second act, announcing that this is his time, not hers. But the heart of the drama is the interplay between Hillary and Bill, and Hillary’s unwillingness to accept a political fate that she cannot change.
Hnath’s script suggests that gender bias and the male-defined contours of politics, as much as Hillary’s missteps and perceived disdain for America’s “deplorables,” account for her failure, but he (wisely) resists hammering the audience with his political views. Instead, he probes intriguing questions about Hillary’s character and motivation. Was her love for this charismatic man, now worn down by his infidelity and betrayals, ever as powerful as her political ambition, or their combined political ambition? Did her marriage advance or destroy her political prospects—or both? Was America’s resistance to her personal, a reaction to her gender, or both? Would her presidential prospects have improved, as she speculates in the play, if she had left Bill—or were her political fortunes so intertwined with his that escape would be an act of political self-immolation? Was Bill’s philandering a reflection of his repressed fear, as Hnath’s Hillary suggests, that if she ever managed to win, her presidency might “eclipse” his?
Despite decades in the public eye, Hillary Clinton remains an enigma, and Hnath—who is fascinated by powerful female characters, and whose last play was a “sequel” to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House—is skilled enough to let his version of her remain so. His goal was to make her resonate in drama as profoundly as she has in politics. “Play the text and the persons that exist outside of the text so that you might elevate these characters beyond a facile tabloid reality,” Hnath writes in his program notes.
At its core, Hillary and Clinton is not a play about the mechanics of politics. It’s a short but rich drama about a fascinating character, or two characters; about their co-dependency; and about how they cope with failure. “I don’t cry,” Hillary tells Bill. “I keep it together.” That’s no small boast, in theater or in life.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes